(14a) Cities


Recently there were some articles in New Scientist about cities including "Urban truths" (December 14, 2013) describing the hidden laws governing cities while two other articles (December 7, 2013) are more about present day and future cities including "Making sense of the city" that describes the future of "smart" cities while "A towering presence" describes what today can be achieved in designing monuments. I think many of the "hidden laws" concerning the organisation of human cities is similar with other animals that live together in large communities such as aunts where you probably also find clusters repeating themselves within the larger community around the queen.


"Urban truths" describes how cities all over the world are build according to similar lay-outs while at an individual level there are big differences (kind of how we live: the more the world becomes connected, the more regions but also people increase their own individuality to distinguish themselves from the whole structure). These differences can be due to differences in landscapes (societies need to build differently in mountains compared near oceans) but also because of cultural differences (diversity result in differences). Still, cities that originated independently from each other at distances so far apart no contact was possible resulted in similar patterns so people, wherever they go, will quickly recognise the centre and differentiate it from other areas.

For instance, most villages and cities are built around a centre because people want to meet. Long straight streets guide people away while short ones bring them together. Thus, long straight streets exist in cities as people have to move from one district to another while most people prefer the streets in between that are in general less noisy and calmer. And thus districts exist because they turn towards themselves so people can meet more easily while many districts have their own atmosphere (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Basic structure of a city with three districts (circles) connected with each other with main streets (black lines) with some houses and parks surrounding these streets while there are smaller parks in the districts. Other main streets connect with other cities not on the map.
Further, what will be at the heart of these districts? Indeed, what people need most such as shopping centres, medium-sized shops, supermarkets, bars and restaurants in shopping areas while some small shops are located in places where people live so people can buy some essential products locally if needed. Large supermarkets are more likely located between districts near connecting streets with car park so they are easily reachable by many people from different areas who want to buy larger amounts of food while they are too boring and too difficult to reach for people coming from further away. I also think it is not good to locate big shopping areas with many different kind of shops, bars and restaurants outside cities because then people have to leave the city to go shopping while afterwards they often don't return to the centre for a drink or meal and thus these shopping centres damage the local economy. People come from a large area so that traffic increases while many cities are affected by loosing customers. Finally, it can result in people moving to live in the neighbourhood of these shopping centres and thus resulting in increased pressure on the green area around cities.

Also the administrative centre(s) of the city (and its districts) will be located as central as possible so people coming from all districts can easily reach their own district hall or the main building (thus public transport should serve them well) while those having an influence on people are at the heart of city life and thus know what is going on. As these people live in general in other areas of the city, they also know what goes on somewhere else and thus politicians and others (i.e. civil servants, police, doctors, ...) know about possible problems anywhere in the city so they can be solved.

Hospitals are located near large streets for easy access, yet are best in a green environment so unhealthy particles can already be partly filtered out of the air while it is known people heal better when they are in a green environment. This means hospitals in smaller cities are in general located closer to the centre and thus centrally located while in large cities I think they are best located close to main streets between districts so people from different districts can be treated (although that would also mean diseases can spread from one area to another if people catch an illness in hospital). Very large cities also need hospitals closer to but still within the outside of cities so people from further-away villages still have relatively easy access. Some large hospitals (maybe spread over a number of buildings) can have very specialist experience for difficult diseases (such as cancers) while smaller hospitals can exist for daily troubles such as broken arms or removal of appendix. In addition, ambulance services should not only be located in hospitals but mainly in areas where people live without hospitals so ambulances are present when people need to be transported quickly to hospital, without people having to wait for ambulances having to come from far-away hospitals and then return (of course ambulance services can be part of hospitals to transport people living close to the hospital). These services can be privately run (within certain rules). And of course, GPs (local doctors) can be in city centres as well as in small villages to help the ill locally. I think this organisation would increase the services for the people as many specialists are present in larger hospitals while also reduce the price because not all hospitals need special equipment and specialists. Of course, patients will be further away from home and family but also have better cures and thus will be more likely to get better.

But there is also the need to relax in sports centres which can be a gym in the centre while sports fields are more likely located at the outside of districts. Also parks are needed, smaller ones in centres while larger ones more in areas between different districts (although today large parks are also located in area for the rich). Indeed, large parks in centres will probably become smaller when there is the need to build more houses as people tend to prefer living in centres before sacrificing the parks between districts. Large parks are also more likely in the surrounding area of cities, although then we call them woodland or green belt. These too can suffer when cities need to expand.

Future

I still think the design of future cities will continue being organised in this way (unless we decide to do everything from our computer) although there will also be differences. Indeed, more will be done via internet such as completing and submitting documents (e.g. for building permissions) and thus administrative centres may become smaller. Even the meetings of governments and Parliament will become more open via the internet. Still, I think it will be important that the public can continue to be present during meetings so there remains contact between decision makers and public as that improves legislation but also shows politicians work in general for the best of the people. Indeed, if people don't meet, they don't know what go wrong in society and thus can't improve the situation.

In addition, people will continue meeting in bars and restaurants, and go shopping with friends so city centres will continue having shops and bars although they can also shop via the internet. And thus I think supermarkets will become smaller because most people don't like shopping in supermarkets and thus this may be done more via internet, certainly when indeed drones together with drivers can drop what has been ordered at the person's home (I don't think drones can deliver (yet) packages to customers but they may bring items to a certain location where people can collect them or drivers bring them to the customers). Thus, centres with shops, fitness centres, bars and restaurants will continue to exist.

The main difference will be the buildings because people will live in multi-functional buildings with shops, apartments, gyms, bars, restaurants and offices all together (already in many places); indeed, large buildings should not be destined for only one function although this doesn't necessarily mean that buildings should be hundreds of metres high as these probably have their own specific disadvantages and thus the best ratio between height and functionality should be calculated. This doesn't mean that, although people can do everything in their own building, they will not leave the building. No, probably they have friends in other buildings or they want to run outside or they want to visit something else. And although there will be more integration of different functions within one building, that doesn't mean there can't be specific space for something specific such as outdoor sport fields or districts with individual houses for people who don't like living in large buildings. But certainly clubs will be in specific not populated areas within the cities (e.g. under railways) so people can have fun and make some noise without disturbing people who want to sleep. This also means these areas should have easy access to public transport so people can come and go easily. In buildings and city centres there can be bars and clubs but if necessary with specific closing times to reduce noise whenever necessary. This also has the advantage people meet earlier and not only during nights, for instance after work they meet friends.

Figure 2: One place shown from two sides. The black circles on the left show dog shit in the area where often children play while the white shows the place of the dog toilet. These are very close together and thus it is unbelievable people can't walk the extra distance to keep the park clean (trained dogs will even run to the toilet without the need for their owners to follow).

In conclusion, cities, if well run, are the preferred places for young and old while when many people prefer to live outside cities and in the country side, it illustrates to me there are major problems with the cities such as dirty buildings and streets, no good mix of functions, too much noise, too few shops, too much traffic, bad infrastructure for children, ... .

An example: in many streets of Brussels you can find dog poo, even within metres of a dog toilet (see Figure 2). If you're wealthy, would you like living in a city where you get dirty and smelly shoes? And thus many live outside Brussels while in most other main cities people live in the city (remember "Sex and the City"). Telling the dog owners that children play in the park make them angry. Thus, the only solution are cameras and (administrative) penalties, and people will keep the streets clean. In addition, videos are not only useful to punish but also protect those who behave well: good dog owners will not be penalised because police thinks their dog dropped the shit as videos can show who was to blame. Of course, this should be of good use and with reason, not merely to collect money because everyone can make mistakes but to correct people's behaviour. For instance, if a person throws a paper on the ground he can be asked to remove it but if he refuses then can be penalised. Further, people should be told in advance that they need to carry a bag so they can collect the dog shit and throw it away in special bins plus the penalties if they don't obey. Then people can't claim they didn't know and society ends with a clean city without the need to walk around with your head towards the streets to avoid stepping in dirt. Only those who break the laws will complain.

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